Downing Street is seeking applications for a £135,000 a year data expert to set up a “skunkworks” in Number 10, in the latest evidence of Dominic Cummings’ Whitehall shakeup.
Cummings’ preoccupation with big data is well-known, and he has recently urged ministers’ special advisers to swot up on superforecasting, a way of predicting the future using statistical analysis.
Number 10 has posted a civil service job advertisement for the head of a new analytical unit, whom the job description said will work inside Downing Street for two years.
“The analytical unit, known as 10 ‘data science’ or ‘10ds’ is a pseudo startup within No 10 designed to drive forward the quantitative revolution. The current plan is to establish a data engineering team, data science team, a skunkworks and an analytical deep dive unit,” it said.
The term “skunkworks” was coined by workers at the aircraft maker Lockheed Martin, to cover a small, loosely organised group, working on innovative projects, unencumbered by bureaucracy.
One of the priority policy areas highlighted in the ad for which “analysis is critical”, is “how to optimally achieve net-zero”. It said outside applicants can expect to earn £135,000 – or perhaps more, for an “outstanding candidate” – a salary level likely to raise eyebrows in Whitehall.
“The unit will ensure that No 10 is an intelligent customer of analysis, providing challenge and feedback across government,” the ad said. It warned that this may require “storytelling,” and the ability to “look through a different lens”.
Creating the new unit is part of a radical shakeup of government, foreshadowed in a blogpost by Cummings in January, in which he highlighted the importance of data analysis. He also claimed “some people in government are prepared to take risks to change things a lot”.
Michael Gove used a recent lecture to bemoan the lack of “hard, testable data” to evaluate whether policies conceived in Whitehall have worked well on the ground. “Government needs to be rigorous and fearless in its evaluation of policy and projects,” he said. Gove also suggested more data should be made public.
“If government ensures its departments and agencies share and publish data far more, then data analytics specialists can help us more rigorously to evaluate policy successes and delivery failures,” he argued.
News of the creation of “10ds” follows the announcement that Whitehall communications are being centralised, with scores of press officers laid off from individual departments, and their reporting lines shifted from their home department to Downing Street.
A string of senior Whitehall figures have left their posts in recent weeks, including cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill, whose resignation was followed by the announcement that he would receive a compensation payment of almost £250,000.